Hi friends! I am happy to report we are back to regularly scheduled programming around here.
If you follow me on Instagram, you may have noticed I’ve been to San Francisco twice in the past three weeks! That’s right, I didn’t go to the City by the Bay for nearly 26 years, and then I ended up there twice in the same month. Good things come to those who wait, I suppose!
My first trek out to the West Coast was actually because of work. I was attending our presentation at Stanford GSB on a Monday morning, and flew out on Saturday morning so I could spend a couple of days exploring San Francisco before heading to Palo Alto. When that opportunity came up, I’d actually had a trip to SF with my friend, Emma, on the books for a couple of months, which was the trip I just returned from last week. I’m extremely grateful I had the opportunities—extra time—to explore this wonderful city. I certainly left a piece of my heart there—and am excited to return one day!
Sharing my travels with you all is one of my favorite parts of blogging—and some of my favorite content to read on other blogger’s sites. I certainly pursued many a San Francisco travel guide when I was planning my recent trips, so I wanted to throw my hat into the travel guide ring and share with you my picks for what to eat, see, and do in SF in case you have a trip planned there, now or in the future. If you have any questions about anything I did while in town, please don’t hesitate to drop me a note in the comments below!
HOW TO GET THERE + GETTING AROUND SF /
Flying is pretty much the only option to get to San Francisco from the DC area/east coast—unless you have time for a cross country road trip. (One day!)
On my first trip, I flew from DCA to SFO on American—I stopped over in Phoenix for an hour on the way there, and Dallas for an hour on the way back. Since I was flying American for all legs of my trip, the short layovers weren’t a problem since my gates were often right next to each other in the terminal. On my second trip, I flew direct on Virgin, but from IAD, which is a bit more of a hike from my Arlington apartment. Honestly, the trip is long either way so I didn’t notice much of a difference from whether or not I was flying direct.
If you’re also flying from the East Coast, one tip is to book your flight to SFO as early as possible so you can maximize your first day in San Francisco. On both trips, I landed by 2pm Pacific, which meant I could really seize the day upon arrival. Traveling from west to east is much harder because the time change doesn’t work in your favor, so it feels like a full day of travel, even though it’s only about a 5 hour flight.
Unlike some cities’ airports, SFO is really close to downtown San Francisco, which I really appreciated. A note that when you arrive at SFO, you call an Uber from the departures level, not the arrivals level, which is counterintuitive but pretty obvious once you open the app. Speaking of Uber—this was my primary method of transportation other than walking. A heads up that San Francisco is HILLY (how did I never pick up on this before?!), so if you can plan your walking routes around the huge hills—something I didn’t do!—you’ll thank yourself later. Of course, San Francisco also has cable cars, but I recommend those more as a tourist activity than an efficient mode of transportation, and the BART, but we didn’t use the latter so I can’t speak to it.
WHERE TO STAY /
On my first trip, I opted to stay in Fisherman’s Wharf at Hotel Zephyr so that I had easier access to all the postcard tourist spots—the Golden Gate Bridge, Pier 39, Lombard Street, the Palace of Fine Arts. I was also staying by myself and meeting up with friends, so I wanted to make sure I was in a neighborhood where there would be lots of people around. The hotel was a good value—especially for the city. The rooms were on the older side, but clean, the staff was friendly, and there was a fun bar on the patio. In the future, I doubt I would stay in Fisherman’s Wharf again just because it was very touristy—but the neighborhood is definitely a great entry point!
The second time I was in San Francisco, I stayed with a friend in the Mission District. So while I can’t recommend a hotel or Air Bnb in this neighborhood, I loved staying in the Mission and would recommend the neighborhood. I felt like I got a true sense of SF’s culture and there are so many great restaurants in the area—especially if you love Mexican food like me. Added bonus—it’s relatively flat!
As an aside, if you’re looking for a place to stay in Palo Alto, I stayed at the Creekside Inn for two nights on my first trip to be near Stanford for work obligations. I was skeptical about staying in a garden-style hotel, but I ended up loving this little inn. The rooms were super clean and the grounds were gorgeous. I even loved the restaurant on-site so much that I ate there two nights in a row. And, if you’re a guest at the hotel, they give you tickets for free wine during happy hour!
WHERE TO EAT + DRINK /
Y’all! Go hungry to San Francisco because the food scene there is great. I didn’t have a single bad meal in town—heck, even the airport food was good. Here’s where I ate:
- Mr. Holmes Bakeshop—I won’t lie—I went here partially for the Instagram opportunity, partially for the cruffin. On the weekend when I went, they open at 8am, but don’t start serving the cruffin until 9am. I arrived around 8:30am and was given a ticket when I got in the cruffin line (there’s a separate, faster-moving line if you don’t want a cruffin!). At 9am, they serve customers with tickets on a first-come, first-serve basis, with a limit of two cruffins per person. If you’re a pastry lover, definitely go—and go early!
- Rose’s Cafe—the cutest Italian restaurant that offers a mix of Italian and American favorites for breakfast. Emma and I opted to sit outside on their patio since they had heaters (!). Definitely follow our lead and split the breakfast pastry basket.
- Craftsman & Wolves—a great coffee shop in the Mission that serves up pastries as well as an assortment of warm breakfast options. I had a whole egg frittata on an English muffin and it was so good.
- Philz Coffee—I’m not a coffee drinker, but Philz is big in San Francisco and so when we were looking for a breakfast spot near the Ferry Building, it was the obvious choice. It’s definitely a fan favorite if you’re looking for something quick before a long day of playing tourist!
for brunch / lunch
- In & Out Burger—I had my first In & Out experience two years ago in Dallas with Monica, so I was excited to grab lunch at this famed burger joint again! A heads up that the only location in city limits is in Fisherman’s Wharf, so it is very touristy and very crowded. There is also very limited seated so if you’re looking for a more relaxing experience, I recommend taking it to go and eating it down by the water.
- El Techo—this is a great Saturday + Sunday brunch spot—it’s the kind of vibe that makes you want to stay all day and drink margaritas. The views of the city from here are also great!
- Dobbs Ferry—when you’re with a group of New Yorkers, a trip to this spot honoring the Westchester town is a must. They have bottomless mimosas here for $16 and aren’t shy about keeping your drink full!
- Souvla—if you love fast casual places like Cava and sweet green, you’ll absolutely love Souvla. Serving up greek pitas and salads, they’re known for their spit fire meat. I don’t usually eat pork, but opted for their pork salad and it was delicious.
- Taqueria Cancun—this was an authentic Mexican spot we grabbed burritos at in the Mission—they were so good! Heads up that this place is cash-only, but there is an ATM on-site.
- Limon Rotisserie—over the last couple of years, I’ve really fallen in love with Peruvian cuisine and Limon Rotisserie didn’t disappoint! I’d highly recommend opting for a reservation here—we arrived at 6:15pm and the place was empty, but by 7pm it’d filled up! This restaurant is also on the louder side, so if you’re looking for a quiet place to talk, I’d go elsewhere.
- Tacolicious—this was one of my favorite meals in San Francisco! Emma and I stumbled on this cute taqueria right after we arrived and enjoyed a great happy hour on their patio. Margaritas were only $6 and there were also great deals on tacos and dips—we tried the queso, refried beans, and guac.
- Caffe Macaroni—we picked this Italian restaurant off the amazing Yelp reviews and it was so wonderfully authentic. We each had a different pasta and split a bottle of wine, which got us to talking to the couple next to us—they’ve been going here for over 20 years!
- Foreign Cinema—this was our fancy last supper in San Francisco and I’d say we saved the best for last. They play films on a huge projector while you’re eating and the space is just so cool—very urban chic. The food is definitely on the adventurous side—but everything we had was delicious. I splurged on the flat iron steak for my entree and am so glad I did!
- Cliff House—if you go to one spot on this list, I’d make it Cliff House. This is a beautiful, historic restaurant over looking the Pacific Ocean at the head of the Lands End Trail near the Sutro Baths. There are several dining options inside ranging from casual to formal. Emma and I opted to grab drinks and salads at the Zinc Bar in the Bistro Restaurant and stayed for several hours because we couldn’t get over the ocean views.
- Tonga Room—hands down, my favorite bar in San Francisco, Tonga Room is a tiki bar in the basement of the Fairmont Hotel. I would describe it as an adult rain forest cafe—a live band plays on a boat in the middle of a pool surrounded by tiki huts. During their intermissions, a fake rainstorm, complete with thunder, rolls into the bar. This is such a fun place and attracts a wide variety of age groups—it’s almost akin to a wedding reception! Heads up—the line starts to get long around 10pm and the drinks are pricey, but the whole experience is so worth it.
- Anina—a fun day drinking spot in the Hayes Valley neighborhood, Anina had creative cocktails and really lively patio. Heads up that the minimum bar tab is $20!
- Southern Pacific Brewing Co.—this was a fun brewery that served not only great craft beers, but really good bar food. We spent a Friday night here watching playoff baseball games and had a blast. If you’ve been to American Ice Company in DC, this place has a similar vibe.
- Anchor Brewing Company—touring Anchor Brewing Company was one of the highlights of my time in San Francisco. The 90-minute tour was super informative going over the history of steam beer, prohibition, and San Francisco. We also were able to tour the plant where the beer is actually made and, of course, were able to sample as much as we wanted! At $25/person, this tour was well worth the money and perfect if you love history (and/or craft beer) as much as me and my friends.
WHAT TO DO /
There is so much to do in San Francisco—you couldn’t possibly do it all in one, or even two, trip! I spent a combined total of nine days in town and was able to cover a lot of ground.
When I first saw the Golden Gate Bridge in-person from afar in Fisherman’s Wharf, I was seriously in awe. I don’t think I expected to love seeing that bridge as much as I did! Upon seeing it from afar, I immediately knew I wanted to see it up close, so I Ubered over to the Golden Gate Bridge Visitor’s Center, which offers great lookout points for pictures as well as an access points to walk or bike across the bridge and hop on the nearby trails that connect you to the rest of the Presidio. (The Presidio used to be a military post but now is a 1,500 acre park that surrounds the Golden Gate Bridge on the SF side.) I walked about halfway across the bridge and back, and then hopped on a pedestrian trail that lead me down to Crissy Field, which is a good place to grab an Uber to your next destination. The trails around the bridge are not strenuous and offer amazing views. Some of the walking paths aren’t paved, so I’d recommend not wearing blush ballet flats like I did.
For another great view of the bridge, I’d recommend hiking the Lands End Trail. This is a relatively easy hike, but there are some steep hills, so if you have an injury or aren’t wearing the proper footwear (I wore converse, but wouldn’t have wanted to be in sandals), it could be rough. We picked up the trail at the ruins of the Sutro Baths and hiked for about 1.5 miles until the trail came to a natural endpoint. If you hike the trail the opposite way we did, you could end your journey at Cliffhouse for a drink—or you could pregame the hike!
It’s on the Lands End Trail hike where you can veer slightly off the path to see the Labyrinth, which was one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen. The Labyrinth isn’t clearly marked, but there are tons of people heading that way, so it’s easy to pick up the trail. A heads up, it is down a sizable set of stairs, which are a lot harder on the way back up ;]!
Besides taking in views of the Golden Gate Bridge, as corny as it is, I loved riding a cable car. We picked one up at the Powell Street Station and rode it all the way to Fisherman’s Wharf. It is amazing how those cars can get up and down San Francisco’s steep hills—I definitely lost my stomach a few times! The line at the Powell Street Station is long, but it does move quickly. They don’t fill the cable cars to maximum occupancy at Powell Street since it is the first stop, so if you wanted to skip the line, you could easily pick it up at the second stop, but you might not get your choice of seat. The ride is $7 and you can pay the operator once you’re on board.
I also wanted to share a few places I loved seeing in San Francisco, but wouldn’t recommend carving out more than 30-45 minutes for. However, if you hit all these sites on one day like I basically did, it’d make for a really productive and adventurous schedule:
- Snap a photo at the Full House house at 1709 Broderick Street
- Walk up and down the curvy part of Lombard Street. Heads up, it’s so hard to get a good ‘gram here because there are so many tourists—if you can, go in the morning when the lighting is better!
- See the Painted Ladies. To be honest, I was a tad underwhelmed by these in real life, but Alamo Square Park which borders them is a great place for a picnic lunch and has great views of the Financial District, especially at sunset.
- Walk around Fisherman’s Wharf and see the sea lions at Pier 39.
- Scope out the Ferry Building, which is still an active port and has an awesome indoor market similar to the one in Grand Central Station. I may or may not have gotten frozen yogurt from Gott’s Roadside at 11am.
- Walk down Valencia Street in the Mission and pop in and out of cute boutiques and vintage stores and see the Instagrammers dream in Clarion Alley.
- See the bison in Golden Gate Park. Emma and I did this, but they had just been fed so they were kind of far away from the fence. If you want to go, I’d recommend researching the best time to get a good view.
On my next trip to San Francisco, I’d love to spend a day in Sausalito, visit Alcatraz, see the Palace of Fine Arts up close, and see the redwoods in Muir Woods.
One last aside—as I mentioned previously, I was able to go to Palo Alto and visit Stanford University while out in the San Francisco area. If you have the opportunity to go, I’d highly recommend it! The campus is stunning and Palo Alto has a cute downtown area—I wish I had the opportunity to explore more, but I was working the majority of my trip. I loved grabbing breakfast at Blue Bottle Coffee, eating tapas al fresco at Joya, and my two dinners at Cibo, the restaurant attached to my hotel.
I will say, Palo Alto is about a 45-minute Uber ride from downtown San Francisco, so if you have a limited amount of time, I’d opt to keep it simple and stay in the city.
If you have any questions about my trips to San Francisco, let me know and I’d be happy to answer them! If you’re looking for an amazing city to visit, I can’t recommend SF enough.
I LOVE Stanford’s campuses (and SF in general- though I haven’t been there since high school!). Three of my college friends live out there and I’m itching to go back! Thanks for sharing some tips 🙂
Of course, Sarah! I loved it, too — seriously so beautiful!
I love living in SF! You mentioned all my favorite spots especially Anina and Tonga room! so glad you were able to visit 🙂
Aw yay! I am so glad I hit your favorites! x
San Francisco’s amazing! I loved exploring the food scene in San Francisco and Berkeley. The Golden Gate bridge was amazing to walk across.
I could not agree more, Sophie! x
Love this! San Fran is such a fun town. This was a great post and makes me want to plan for another trip, especially to see the Golden Gate Bridge! It was too foggy when I was there last so I only “saw” it when I was actually standing on it!
I would 10/10 recommend doing the Alcatraz tour at night – it’s way spookier, but make sure to dress WARMLY. I went in late August a few years back and was frozen solid in a light jacket (but totally worth it). Sausalito is gorgeous too and also several degrees warmer than San Fran. Lappert’s ice cream is a must do over there 🙂
Thanks so much, Kate! I hope you get to see the Golden Gate when there isn’t fog, soon! I just got really lucky! I will definitely do Alcatraz and Sausalito next time!